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'New Malaysia' can be a catalyst for region - Kavi Chongkittavorn

 www.bangkokpost.com/opinion/opinion/1470421/new-malaysia-can-be-a-catalyst-for-region

The recent Malaysian political tsunami will endow the country with more equality among different races and render positive impacts for the rest of the region and beyond.

The humiliating defeat of the United Malay National Organisation (Umno) is now the biggest story in the annals of Malaysian history. It will take forever to dissect what went right and wrong over the past 61 years that led to the opposition's poll victory. One thing is clear -- those who did not vote for the opposition missed the epoch-making opportunity. From now on, the headline-grabbing corruption case involving a Malaysian state fund, known as 1MDB, will rear its ugly head with more politicians and influential elites being implicated. Seizures of luxury goods belonging to Mr Najib's family are just a trailer for what will come next. How deep will the new government led by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and his Harapan Pakatan allies dig? Nobody really knows.

The danger has always been that when a long-standing reigning power loses its grip on power, there are lots of bargaining sessions between the previous and new power wielders over how they will go about the country's future governance and deal with the predecessor's legacy. In this case, it has been made more difficult because it will be among former colleagues and friends. The newly elected Dr Mahathir is no saint and he has also his own problems from past deals. Furthermore, investigation of Umno's malfeasance and other under-the-radar activities, especially those of the political elites, would be akin to opening a can of worms, and anything can happen.

The opposition's victory has more to do with the public's disgust at former prime minister Najib Razak and his handling of the scandalous Malaysian state fund as well as his wife Rosmah Mansor's opulent style. Furthermore, thanks to Dr Mahathir's still good standing among the rural Malay voters who have benefited immeasurably from his former party's biased economic policies for the Bumiputra, minorities, especially in urban areas, have always sided with the opposition.

It was heartening that the just-released Anwar Ibrahim has called for the end of race policies. It was brave for him to say this so soon. He reiterated that a transparent merit-based system will benefit poor Malays. His opposition party did not win the previous election. Without Dr Mahathir, Mr Anwar's political renewal would not be possible. It remains to be seen how Dr Mahathir, with a long list of baggage of his own, will be able to work together with liberal-minded Mr Anwar. If both leaders work well together, it will bring racial harmony, prosperity and stability to Malaysia.

Beyond the domestic domain, with Dr Mahathir in charge, he will be more assertive in conducting foreign policy, especially with major powers. The world's oldest prime minister has a strong asset as the Asian culture respects senior statesmen. Therefore, at the upcoming United Nations General Assembly in September, Dr Mahathir will want to register or even promote a Malaysian brand of development. Closer to home, at the 13th East Asia Summit in November in Singapore, Dr Mahathir will certainly not just read his speech. He will have provocative thoughts for Asean and its dialogue partners, with or without US President Donald Trump's attendance.

It is interesting to note that the US government issued a mild statement congratulating Malaysians for their participation in a hard-fought election campaign. "Malaysians from all parties, states, and backgrounds engaged the electoral process in large numbers peacefully and with great enthusiasm." That was all from Washington for the region's most dramatic political upset. Obviously, under Mr Najib, US-Malaysian ties have gone from strength to strength which led Kuala Lumpur to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

As a moderate Muslim country with well-balanced policies in a multiracial society, Malaysia can promote Asean-style democracy and solidarity. Since the block's inception in 1967, Malaysia has always acted on its own perceptions, frequently moving against conventional wisdom and actions. During the Cambodian conflict (1978-1992), Kuala Lumpur set forth the Kuantan Principles challenging the common Asean approach to ending the conflict. Then, Malaysia under Dr Mahathir led Asean to stand up against the West with the proposal to set up the East Asian Economic Community, which was quickly shot down by the US.

Prior to the election, Mr Najib denounced its Asean colleagues for their policy-response and treatment of the Rohingya. To increase Muslim support at home, he unwisely condemned Myanmar's State Counsellor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi, by name, breaking the Asean norm. He undermined Asean solidarity as well as the legacy of his father, former prime minister Tunku Abdul Razak, who was a firm believer in Asean.

It is hoped that Malaysia will soften its approach toward the Rakhine crisis in Myanmar. Mr Anwar, the prime-minister-in-waiting, had been a great supporter of Ms Suu Kyi when she was under house arrest. With more consensus over the Rohingya, Asean can do more to help Myanmar in humanitarian terms and long-haul projects related to public healthcare, community-building and interfaith dialogue. Most importantly, an Asean that is solidly behind Myanmar's effort to resolve the Rakhine crisis will help to mitigate external pressure on Nay Pyi Taw coming from all fronts.

Indeed, with the current team, Mr Anwar in particular, Malaysia can now go full throttle to promote interfaith dialogues both inside Asean and beyond. When Mr Najib pushed his brainchild, the Global Movement of Moderates, as an Asean agenda during the Langawi Summit in May in 2015, his colleagues agreed even though he was using racial politics and religion to promote his leadership and the Umno. Mr Anwar is an internationally known and well-established scholar on interfaith issues.

Looking ahead, Malaysia's democracy and social fabric will grow stronger by the day under the Mahathir-Anwar leadership. It will positively impact Asean, which is no longer a club of dictatorial governments. Currently 445 out of 640 million Asean citizens are living in democracies, however imperfect they may be. When the next poll is held in Thailand, the democratic process will be further moved forward. Then the grouping's overall political pathway will be less authoritarian.

For the time being, Malaysia's media will be the biggest beneficiary because Dr Mahathir, who used to impose censorship under his administration, has changed his mind. Banned newspapers and websites have reappeared. Over the years, he has utilised Facebook and online media such as Malaysiakini to boost his profile after retiring from politics. In fact, it was Dr Mahathir's mastery of Facebook, not tweets, that provided a much-needed youthful look and impetus for his political return.

Dr Mahathir said he would stay for one or two years while Mr Anwar said he was not rushing. As such, Malaysia is moving forward, mending its own racial divide and bringing the country's new ethos to the regional and international community.


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